Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven

This morning I woke from a dream of grief to see the early light coming through my window. The pain of a lost relationship had receded from my daily life. Habits and calendars and patterns of movement shifted.

But in my dream, I still wept. I woke feeling disjointed, as these tears seemed to stain the life I am opening myself to. How am I supposed to live and love and be open to the future when what I have lost still comes to me in dreams?

I let myself sit and watch the freezing rain and listen to the hiss of passing cars. I should simply get on with things, the way my neighbors were busily getting on with another day. I should reject my grief and take up the joy of the morning and move on. Right?

“Rejoice with them that do rejoice, and weep with them that weep.” Romans 12:15.

Of course not. My grief is not a threat to my joy. The presence of grief does not mark the absence of joy. I am one who rejoices and weeps, all in one morning. Paul’s words in the letter to the Romans are calling me to be present with my grief as much as my joy. I find that the more present I am to my grief, the more ready I am for joy. My grief does not betray my joy. My joy does not betray my grief.

And my neighbors sliding through slush and snow and getting on with their days? They are rejoicing and weeping, too. When I can be present to the grief and joy that are tangled in my heart, I can go to others from the heart, from my mingled heart. I can meet their grief from my place of grief, and I can meet their joy from my place of joy. And they are one place.

 

The Return of Job

by Anna Kamienska

Job didn’t die
didn’t throw himself under a train
didn’t croak in a vacant lot
the chimney didn’t spew him out
despair didn’t finish him off
he arose from everything
from misery dirt
scabs loneliness

How much more authentic a dead Job would be
even after death shaking his fist at the God of pain
But Job survived
washed his body of blood sweat pus
and lay down in his house again
New friends were gathering
a new life was breathing new love into his mouth
new children were growing up with soft hair
for Job to touch with his hands
new sheep donkeys oxen were bellowing
shaking new shackles in the stable
kneeling on straw

But happy Job didn’t have the strength to be happy
afraid he’d betray happiness by a second happiness
afraid he’d betray life by a second life
Wouldn’t it be better for you Job
to remain dirt since you are dirt
The pustules washed off your hands and face
ate through your heart and liver
You will die Job
Wouldn’t it be better for you
to die with the others
in the same pain and mourning
than to depart from this new happiness
You walk in the dark
wrapped in darkness
among new people
useless as a pang of conscience
You suffered through pain
now suffer through happiness

And Job whispered stubbornly Lord Lord

 
 
 
 
 
 
“Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven” is the title of an album by Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Artwork by Will Schaff.

Let the dead bury the dead


I go to church most weeks and I’m not always sure why. Sometimes I go because I’ve been asked to do something specific like read a poem or help coordinate the evening. Other times I go because I want to see people and share a meal and resist the isolating effects of the city and my psyche. Often I go because my church is a beautiful community and I want to help that community thrive. But in all these reasons there is something deeper that calls me, and I’m rarely sure what that is. It’s by going that I find out.

I know why I went this week.

This week we read from the Gospel of Matthew and heard Jesus admonish those who would follow him to do so directly, and to let the dead bury the dead.

And then, during a time of reflection after the sermon, my pastor put the question to us, to me:

“What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

Not “Have you experienced the death of something?”

Not “What do you need to let go of, what do you need to let die?”

Not “What isn’t really a death, but a beginning for new life?”

Not “What death do you need to accept?”

Rather, “What is dead in your life that you don’t need to bury?”

It was the kind of question that struck me at an intuitive level before I knew how to articulate my response. What struck me first was that the question didn’t linger on whether there were dead things in my life. No time for hemming and hawing about what’s not dead yet. The question confronted me: “There are corpses in your life. We’re starting with that truth.”

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

There was no question that death had not shown mercy. It wasn’t up to me to let anything die. Death had done its work and now was the time for me to do mine.

We were given sheets of paper to write down our responses, and all the dead in my life came tumbling out onto the page. My sense of failing others when my marriage failed. My repeatedly crushed hopes for affirmation from my father. The ridiculous expectations I continue to burden myself with because I am a stereotypical first-born. My unkindness to myself for this ridiculousness. My unkindness to others because of my unkindness to myself. All the neatly stacked corpses.

 

 

i-know-what-my-weaknesses-are

Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

I’ve tried to bury the dead for years, but they keep rising from the grave. Dead sorrows can’t be drowned. At some point, I began dragging the dead around with me as if they were some sort of badge of honor, to show how “real” and “honest” and “deeply human” I was. I accepted these deaths boldly and wasn’t that kind of bad-ass of me? I was so hardcore.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

It seems to me now that I needed the dead to prove I was living. But as long as my focus was on the dead, I wasn’t actually taking the risks and exposing myself to the vulnerability of living, let alone the hazards of following the call I heard in Christ’s words. You can’t risk death until you’ve fully embraced life.

I didn’t need to deny the dead, I didn’t need to accept the dead. I didn’t need to get closure. Instead, I needed to let the dead remain unresolved, to let the dead bury the dead.

In his collection of essays titled “The Examined Life,” psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz writes against the notion of closure. Contra the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, he writes: “My experience is that closure is an extraordinarily compelling fantasy of mourning. It is the fiction that we can love, lose, suffer and then do something to permanently end our sorrow. We want to believe we can reach closure because grief can surprise and disorder us – even years after our loss.”

Not closure, then, but openness. Following where Christ is leading me, even if I’m not sure where that is or exactly why I’m following. Trusting that in seeking, I’ll find what I need to keep going.

 

 

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Will Schaff. Click to enlarge.

 

 

An Important Failure: Simone Weil, Suffering, and the Obscenity of Explanation

mark-tansey

Mark Tansey “Discarding the Frame”

Writing in the New Yorker a couple years ago, Aleksandar Hemon offered a harrowing account of the loss of his nine-month-old daughter, Isabel, to a vicious form of cancer. Hemon describes the  “unimaginable and incomprehensible” place of abandonment that he and his wife found themselves in, alienated from the rest of the world as if they were occupants of an aquarium – visible, yet “living and breathing in entirely different environments” than those around them. Compounding their pain was the “vacuous, hackneyed language,” and “that supreme platitude: God,” which others offered as ways of finding meaning. Hemon and his wife held to each other and rejected these efforts, while unable themselves to “construct a story that would help [them] comprehend what was happening.”

the despicable religious fallacy that suffering is ennobling

At first blush, the hard, almost stoic vision of God and redemptive suffering that Simone Weil offers would seem to be almost obscene in light of the suffering Hemon describes. After all, Hemon explicitly rejects as “despicable religious fallacy” the notion that “suffering is ennobling—that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation.”

My reading of Weil suggests that by rejecting God and all accounts that try and bring meaning to the suffering Hemon endures and bears witness to, Hemon clears out all the imaginary constructions that would fill the void, as Weil calls it. The religious expressions Hemon is offered (including those that come in secular garb), are what Weil calls the “imaginary divinity,” which has been “given to man so that he may strip himself of it like Christ did of his real divinity.” For Weil, Hemon’s rejection of consolation is precisely the act that creates the space for true faith. The atheism he expresses rids his heart of an idolotrous divinty that exists to meet his desires: the survival of his child, or the availability of meaning in the face of her suffering and death.

when Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none

For Weil, “to pray is like a death,” and perhaps the reverse is also true for her: death is like prayer. Hemon puts to death all consolation for his pain. He puts to death that part of his own Self that would seek cure. He doesn’t reject a specific religious account, he rejects all accounts, categorically. In this, Hemon is like the God that Job encounters in the whirlwind. When Job demands an account from God that would explain his sufferings, God offers none. God, the One we look to as we seek meaning in the world, refuses to play the role. God refuses to be an idol. Job responds to God’s refusal with silence, much as Hemon and his wife respond to their friends’ claims that “words fail” by keeping secret the fact that words in fact do not fail, that Hemon’s suffering can be described in excruciating detail.

Christ, too, encounters God’s silence, which Weil describes as God’s absence. Yet unlike Job and Hemon, who keep the secret, Christ on the cross cries out, naming God’s absence, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Christ’s atheism is in an existential register – God has abandoned him to die – and yet Christ addresses this God as God, as if God could hear his cry. Christ prays to God, and for him, as for Weil, “to pray is like a death.”

redemptive suffering produces the absence of God

What, then, of Weil’s notion of redemptive suffering? Is this the blasphemous notion that Hemon is rejecting? For Weil, “Redemptive suffering … produces the absence of God, … [it] is that by which evil really has fullness of being to the utmost extent of its capacity.” It would seem that Hemon has seen only an abundance of evil, what he calls “a dark universe of pain.” And yet in that pain, he finds himself closer to his wife than he has ever been to anyone, and he is consumed by “Isabel’s present, torturous but still beautiful life.”

Hemon could reject the idea that Isabel’s broken body could sustain a beautiful life. He could allow his sorrow to make him as blind as fear has made his chattering friends. Yet it is perhaps because he has rejected consolation and faced God’s absence that he is able to encounter the life that struggles before him.

Weil claims that “He who has not God within himself cannot feel his absence,” and Hemon seems to feel God’s absence. After Isabel dies, Hemon feels her absence. For Weil, “the presence of the dead person is imaginary, but his absence is very real: henceforward it is his way of appearing.” For Hemon, “her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is a continuous secretion of sorrow.”

in that ventrical wilderness, he loves

Hemon’s rejection of comprehension leaves his heart stripped bare, and in that ventrical wilderness, he loves. He loves his wife, he loves his daughters, he loves those who fail in their efforts to comfort him. Hemon’s willingness to confront catastrophe is the same strength that allows him to affirm his three-year-old’s blossoming life.

It is not clear whether Hemon rejects every explanation because each fails in the face of reality, or if he rejects comprehension as such. To bear witness to suffering may entail rejecting adequate explanations, as they diminish the suffering. It is important, then to note the failures of our gods, but perhaps it is more important that our gods fail.

The Art of Losing

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

The Broken God

This is the first sermon I’ve shared at St Lydia’s.
It is based on Psalm 22 and Matthew 27.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I don’t know of a Psalm with a more striking opener.

If that’s where we’re starting,
where do we go from here?
Where is there to go?

Well, the Psalmist turns directly to the past:

“Our ancestors put their trust in you, they trusted, and you rescued them.”

The Psalmist turns to look at God at work
with other people at another time.

When he turns back to the present in verse 6,
he doesn’t see people being saved by God,
he sees himself and those who scorn him,
mocking him and telling him to

“Trust in the LORD
let the LORD deliver;
let God rescue him
if God so delights in him”

Next, the Psalmist recalls when God was present to him,
in the past, at his birth, and in his youth.

But now?

Now he is surrounded,
assaulted,
“poured out like water”,
and says that
God “has laid him in the dust of death.”

He pleads for God to deliver him, to save and rescue him,
but God is nowhere to be found.

After visiting the past,
and pleading with God to save him in the present,
the Psalmist looks to the future:

“I will declare your name to my people,
in the midst of the assembly I will praise you”

Is he bargaining?

Is he telling God that he will praise God if God will save him?
If God will show his might and rescue him?

Or is he more noble than that?

Perhaps he is proclaiming that he will praise God,
because he “trusts in the LORD, who will deliver”

But these are the words of those who scorn him!

He seems to be adopting their logic.

So, what is going on here?

My relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

The first lines of this Psalm are Christ’s
last words in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

I think this is amazing, really.
Jesus quotes poetry on the cross.
And the line he chooses
is the darkest line of the Psalm.

He doesn’t soften the blow the way the Psalmist seems to,
the Psalmist who looks desperately to the past and to the future,
apparently unable to face the absence of God in the present.

But I should be careful here.

The experience the Psalmist and Christ are describing is subtle.
They aren’t actually talking about the the absence of the experience of God,
they are talking about the experience of the absence of God.

What’s the difference?

If they had no experience of God, they would be talking about the absence of the experience of God.
No God, no experience.

But they are talking to God about God’s absence!

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

This names an experience of the absence of God,
which entails a sense of loss
and is experienced as abandonment.

We can’t be abandoned by someone that was never with us.

So on one level, Jesus is addressing God,
by talking about God’s absence.
That’s a rich paradox, and I want to come back to that in a minute.

But first I want to look at the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus quotes Psalm 22 because for me,
my relationship with this text starts with Christ on the cross.

In Matthew and Mark, the Gospel writers describe the scene of Christ crucified.
Like the Psalmist, Christ is subject to scorn.
Some standing near the cross say

“He saved others
(the past)
He cannot save himself
(the present)”

“Let Him come down, and we will believe in Him”

Sound familiar?

To my ear, this sounds both
like those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself!

Those who mock Christ,
those who scorn the Psalmist,
and the Psalmist himself
all seem committed to what St Paul calls “signs and wonders”.

They want to see God act in might and in power,
otherwise, they either end up mocking or losing heart.

So what does Christ on the cross do?

He hears this mocking challenge,
he cries out again,
and he dies.

But then the Gospel writers bring in a new voice.
Standing at the foot of the cross is a centurion,
a Roman guard, who, after Christ dies,
exclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God”

This may be an even more disturbing line than

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

“Truly THIS was the Son of God”???

At least in the Psalmist’s cry we have a notion of a powerful yet absent God.
The centurion, by contrast, claims to see God present –
in a weak, suffering, and dying human.

As I’ve been wrestling with these texts,
I’ve been reminded of GK Chesterton’s observation that,
“God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

I am drawn to Psalm 22 and the account of the crucifixion, because I identify with Christ’s cry of abandonment by God.

I guess you could say I’ve pretty much become an atheist at this point, too.

I don’t see the God of Power the Psalmist seems to long for,
and which the onlookers at the cross pledge to believe in
if that God shows up,
and shows off.

As a friend of mine likes to say,
I’m at least a functional atheist when it comes to that God.

As far as my experience goes,
it doesn’t seem like that God exists.

But I hear something that I recognize in the centurion’s cry.

After he watches Jesus suffer,
cry out to the God who has forsaken him,
and die,
it is THEN that the centurion says,

“Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

It is not after the Resurrection,
it’s not after a show of power,
it’s not after Jesus climbs down from the cross
and kicks ass for the Lord.

No, the centurion sees God in this crushed, broken, and suffering human,
in weakness and in doubt, in death and in defeat.

Is God there?

Does God exist?

To ex-ist means to stand out.

This doesn’t seem to me to be a God that ex-ists,
who stands out,
who makes a big show,
who has a mighty presence.

What the centurion sees
seems to be a God
who in-sists,
who per-sists,
who re-sists.

A God who in-sists
on living and dying with the suffering,
who per-sists
despite being crushed,
and who re-sists
calls for shows of brutal power.

This sounds like a God who, to quote the Psalmist,

“does not despise nor abhor
the poor in their poverty,
neither is the LORD’s face
hidden from them;
but when they cry out,
the LORD hears them.”

This seems to be a God who is with those who cry out to God,
a God who takes up their cry,
takes on their suffering,
even their suffering of separation from God.

A God who loses God.

If we are looking for a God of might and power,
we may not find that God to be present,
but if we look to those who suffer,
and hear their insistent,
persistent cries of
resistance,
we may hear, too,
God’s voice
mingled with theirs.

In my life, I don’t see God, I don’t feel God.
As far as I can tell,
the God of power, signs and wonders
has forsaken us.

What I do see is the the body of Christ.

Sometimes,
I see love amidst brokenness, suffering, and despair,
as we share the cup and the bread of our lives.

The Psalmist says

“I will declare your name to my people;
in the midst of the assembly
I will praise you.”

What I can say is

I declare this name, Christ, to you, my friends,
the body of Christ.
And I praise this broken God.

Amen.

The Man Who Wasn’t There: Exegesis of Exodus 4:24-26

Vincent's Chair With His Pipe, Van Gogh, 1888

Vincent’s Chair With His Pipe, Van Gogh, 1888

Violence, divine intervention, blood, circumcision, strange appellations, and a whole lot of ambiguity.

24At a night encampment on the way, the LORD encountered him and sought to kill him. 25So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26And when He let him alone, she added, “A bridegroom of blood because of the circumcision.” (The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation.)

Or:

24On the way, at a place where they spent the night, the LORD met him and tried to kill him. 25But Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched Moses’ feet with it, and said, “Truly you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” 26So he let him alone. It was then she said, “A bridegroom of blood by circumcision.” (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV)

This is a fascinating pericope, or cutting, from Exodus. In it we have violence, divine intervention, blood, circumcision, strange appellations, and a whole lot of ambiguity. The NRSV version tries to remove some of this ambiguity by inserting Moses’ name where the Hebrew only reads “his”, though this decision itself leads to further complications. In this post, I will look at some insights and suggestions others have offered, and then give my take on this strange moment in Exodus.

This dangerous encounter follows Moses’ call by God to lead the Hebrew people out of their Egyptian slavery, and is followed by Moses’ meeting with Aaron in which they do just as God has instructed. So why, if Moses is on his way to do what God has just told him to do, does God attack in the night, seeking to kill?

The main narrative problems I see in this passage are: Who is the LORD seeking to kill? Why is the LORD seeking to kill? Why does the LORD “seek” rather than kill? Who do the masculine pronouns refer to? Which son is circumcised? How does Zipporah know to circumcise in response to the LORD’s attack? Why does circumcision work to cause the LORD to let go? Does circumcision work to this end? What does “Bridegroom of blood” mean, and to whom does it apply?

The deeper problem, the one I will address, is what is the point of this interlude in the Moses story? What does it reveal?

Most attempts to explain this text try to use the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as a key to unlocking this strange story.

First, I want to consider what others have offered in response to this passage. The translators of the NRSV have elected to insert Moses’ name in v 25 as a way of clarifying some of the ambiguity in the passage. It is also a way of tying the action in the passage to Moses, who is central to the texts preceding and following this one. Without this insertion, however, Moses is not explicitly present in this text. But does identifying Moses in this way make the text more intelligible? And does it make it more meaningful?

Most attempts to explain this text try to use the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as a key to unlocking this strange story.

Morgenstern argues against a common reading of the text (advocated by Wellhausen and others) which argues that Moses had failed to satisfy an obligation of circumcision as marriage rite, and is saved vicariously by Zipporah’s circumcision of her son. Morgenstern’s argument rests on two key aspects of Midianite marriage and circumcision.

Midianite marriage was beena marriage, not ba’al marriage. A matriarchal structure, beena marriage traced genealogy through the mother. A child’s father’s identity may not have been known, but the mother’s identity was certain. In this system, a man might establish a beena marriage with a woman, and have children with her. She would remain with her clan, and after a time, he would return to his (mother’s) clan, to which he was responsible. He would then be free to establish another beena marriage with another woman outside his clan. A woman’s clan would be responsible for raising her children, since they were part of the clan by virtue of their mother’s membership.

Patriarchal ba’al marriage, by contrast, occured when a man took a woman from her clan into his clan. Children were part of the clan by virtue of their paternal lineage. The fact that Moses needed his father-in-law’s permission to take Zipporah with him, suggests that her clan practiced beena marriage.

Due to its non-repeatability, circumcision would not have practiced as part of (repeatable) beena marriage, so this was not the motive for the divine assault.

The local deity, Yahweh, seeing what was his being taken away, comes to claim ownership, i.e., to kill the child.

According to Morgenstern, circumcision was a practice that appeased local deities’ claims on children. Much as first fruits offered to a deity allowed for the enjoyment of the rest, offering the foreskin of a male allowed the child to remain with the family, i.e., to live. Since fathers were often absent in clans practicing beena marriage, circumcision fell to the mother’s oldest brother. In this case, the term for “oldest uncle” and “circumciser” would be the same: “One related by blood”. Morgenstern argues that this is the meaning of the phrase translated as “Bridegroom of Blood”.

Morgenstern argues that Moses and Zipporah left Midian having failed to have their second son circumcised. The local deity, Yahweh, seeing what was his being taken away, comes to claim ownership, i.e., to kill the child. Zipporah circumcises her son, acting as the uncle-circumciser, and the threat of death is removed. So Morgenstern has addressed all the major narrative problems within the pericope, but does not connect it to the larger narrative.

Where Morgenstern’s explanation explains the pericope on its own terms, but without any connection to the larger narrative, Propp offers an explanation of the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” that makes two significant connections with the larger Moses story.

In her wisdom, Zipporah makes a way out of no way, circumcising her son, drawing blood from him and applying it to Moses.

Propp argues that the Hebrew word damim, “of blood”, has a connotation of blood-guilt. Taking this as key, Propp argues that Yahweh has competing interests with regard to Moses. On the one hand, the deity wants to employ Moses to liberate the Hebrew people, and on the other hand, divine justice in the matter of the murdered Egyptian remains unsatisfied. So as Moses returns to Egypt, the deity comes to take blood for blood. This results in an impasse between the deity’s conflicting desires. (This would explain why the deity seeks to kill but does not kill directly). In her wisdom, Zipporah makes a way out of no way, circumcising her son, drawing blood from him and applying it to Moses. This appeases the deity, who releases Moses and allows him to continue on his God-ordained journey. Nonetheless, this is a traumatic experience for Zipporah, who is, perhaps for the first time, confronted with her husband as murderer, who causes her to draw blood from her child. He is a “blood-guilty husband” to her.

Propp also points out that this circumcision prepares the son for the coming passover, for which circumcision is required. Why this would need to happen so far in advance, and why the reader would need to know this detail remain undexplained.

Propp’s take on the meaning of the term “Bridegroom of Blood” explains the incident fairly well, and makes connections to the rest of the Moses narrative. However, it directly conflicts with Morgenstern’s account of the meaning of the phrase. So we are at an impasse as far as a conclusive account that explains the story and relates it to the broader narrative. Neither account does more than account for the elements in the story, neither gets at the significance of the story as such, and why it was written.

Instead of explaining this confused story, perhaps we should acknowledge the confusion. Perhaps the confusion is a key to understanding the story.

In another commentary, Propp compares this story to the folk-form of “Sojourner’s Tale”. The story has several key elements of this folk-form, but is distinctive for its lack of happy ending with sojourner returning to rest at home. Moses returns to his people, but only to inaugurate their sojourn.

This discontinuity with the expected outcome of the Sojourner’s Tale is suggestive, however, and so we should return to the text with incompleteness in mind.

Given the structural ambiguities of the text, it is impossible to know what happened to who. Someone got cut. That much is clear.

Instead of explaining this confused story, perhaps we should acknowledge the confusion. Perhaps the confusion is a key to understanding the story.

Something set Zipporah in motion, trying to appease the confusion that struck her family in the night. Acting in the dark, she may have added to the confusion. What is she doing circumcising? Who is she circumcising? Who is she throwing foreskins at? Who is she talking to? Why does she speak? And what does she mean by what she says?

I think she speaks to try and restore order and meaning. She is trying to bring order to chaos by assigning guilt as cause, threat as effect, and circumcision as remedy. In writing, the author further tries to fix meaning. Written words are more definitive than speech. Zipporah cuts her son’s flesh. The author “cuts” this story into the flesh of a scroll. Likewise, exegetes try to make their own cuts, their own attempts at explaining the inexplicable.

Moses, the absent center of this story

It is not that this text is simply difficult to interpret at first, but with proper knowledge and technique one can arrive at a satisfying explanation of what appears confusing. Many texts are like that. Not this one. The text is not presenting a clear meaning that needs elucidation or interpretation. The text is presenting the uninterpretable, the inexplicable, as such. Is this not a necessary supplement to following the commands of God? Is it not essential to recognize that one does not know what one is doing when one acts this way? Divine command is a terrifying thing, taking responsibility from the individual, and placing the individual in a precarious position. Precarious is related to the verb “to pray.” If one enters into this endeavor, one had better pray. Prayer is the admission that one is in suspense. And Moses is the suspended individual par excellence.

My argument, then, is to turn from the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood” as interpretive key, and focus instead on Moses, the absent center of this story.

This is a passage marked by absence, ambiguity, incompleteness, and suspense. We do not know where the story takes place – it is simply “on the way.” The deity’s motives are not given. The masculine pronouns produce ambiguity of reference. The circumcised son is not named. The son’s foreskin suggests his unmentioned penis. The foreskin itself is a token of fragmentation, of a part that represents the whole. The text does not clarify the meaning of the phrase “Bridegroom of Blood”, nor does it tell us how Zipporah knew how to respond as she did. And finally, it is not clear why the deity relents, we only know that he does. The text does not mention Moses. In the middle of a narrative entirely focused on Moses, he is notably unnamed. (There is a curious reflection here of the treatment of the name of God. Whereas the text contains the name of God, which is read out as “adonai” instead, the text does not contain the name of Moses, which is read into the text by some readers. This is suggestive of Moses’ role as mediator between humanity and God, as reflecting God to humanity. So absence and presence are significant in relation to the mediating prophet.)

The entire structure of this pericope forces us to accept that we are confronting something that is not to be simply interpreted away. It also draws us in to consider what it says about the one it does not name.

This pericope significantly reflects Moses’ condition as mediating prophet, the one suspended in between command and fulfillment, promise and fulfillment, between God and God’s people.

Separated, cut off, incomplete.

Notice how Moses is cut off, alienated, displaced, and absent from home throughout his life. He is born outside of Canaan, under threat of death. He is separated from his family, under threat of death. He is saved by women: his mother, sister, and the Pharaoh’s daughter. Nonetheless, he is separated from the Egyptians, under threat of death. God’s disruption sends him back to Egypt, under threat of death. This does not reunite him, but puts him in conflict with the Egyptians, under threat of death. He has to re-establish relations with his people, though he is never quite able to do so, constantly at odds with them, even to his death, for which he blames them. He has to ward off the threat of the Angel of Death by blood. He is unable to remain in Egypt, and flees under threat of death. He enters the wilderness, an environment full of the threat of death. And he approaches but never enters Canaan, dying on the other side of the Jordan, cut off from the land his entire life. Born, living, and dying outside. Moses is always separated, cut off, incomplete.

His condition is captured beautifully, poetically, in this passage, which brings together elements from his life preceding and following this event. The events in the story occur at night, in the absence of light and understanding (suggesting perhaps how little the deliverer of light and truth sees and understands.) He is (as always) away from home. He is (as always) “on the way”, a phrase repeatedly used to describe the people during the exodus. God shows up as disruption, much as in the burning bush. No motive is given for God’s action – that is cut off from Moses’ understanding. There is, as always, the threat of death.

Moses is saved by a woman. Zipporah is the axis of presence: it is her son/her act/her speech/her bridegroom. She drives the narrative. Moses is the axis of absence.

What is required is a cutting, in order to fulfill a covenant (an agreement cut with God), that Moses was cut off from knowing, yet he is under threat of being “cut off.” A flint, a fragment, is used to accomplish this cutting. As with the passover, the threat of death is warded off by blood. Cut off from everything, Moses ends up a Bridegroom of Blood, instead of Zipporah’s husband: he ends up cut off from Zipporah. (Exodus 18 explains that Moses sent Zipporah and his sons away to her father (which would accord with beena marriage). When they are reunited in Exodus 18, Moses spends all his time with his father-in-law.)

Separated, cut off, incomplete.

So, finally, we return to the “Bridegroom of Blood.” How does this strange appellation work within this narrative? What does it tell us? We have seen how Moses’ experience is one of absence, fragmentation, suspension, incompleteness. Yet what is his relationship to his people as prophet? Is he not to them a “Bridegroom of Blood”? This is a bifurcated name. Nowhere else does “bridegroom” have such a horrible sound. This is a name that bring together the wonderful and the terrible. Fittingly reflecting a prophet whose relationships are cut, split. Moses frees the people, yet that generation dies in the wilderness. Moses is of these people, yet not of these people. He brings them out of Egypt, but not into Canaan. He sets before them a choice between life and death, blessing and curse. As mediator between the people and God, he communicates God’s love and God’s wrath. He provides for their needs, and commands the Levites to wantonly slaughter the people. He is faithful to God, yet denied by God.

This amazing pericope is a portrait of Moses. These three verses capture his experience, and how others experience him. The brilliance of the portrait is that Moses is nowhere to be found in it. It is as if his silhouette reveals more about him than any detailed portrayal ever could.

Bibliography


Bushell, Michael S., and Tan, Michael D., Source: Bibleworks 7, 2003, Bibleworks

Caputo, John D. Source: The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida, 1997, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press

Morgenstern, Julian. Source: Hebrew Union College Annual, 34 1963, p 35-70.

Pippin, Tina; Aichele, George. Source: Culture, entertainment and the Bible, p 106-123. Sheffield, Eng. : Sheffield Academic Press, 2000

Propp, William Henry. Source: The Anchor Bible Commentary, Vol 2, 1998, p 189-243

Propp, William Henry. Source: Vetus testamentum, 43 no 4 O 1993, p 495-518.

Sharp, Carolyn J. Source: Wrestling the Word, 2010, Louisville, KY : Westminster John Know Press

The Jewish Study Bible, TANAKH Translation, 2004, Oxford, Oxford University Press

The New Oxford Annotated Bible, NRSV, 2010, Oxford, Oxford University Press